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University of Guilan

Macbeth: Fate or Free Will?

By:
Narges Sayyadi

June 2014

Contents
1

Abstract

iii

1.

Introduction

1
2. Elements Related to Fate
2.1.

The

2.2.

The

Influence

of

the

Witches

on

Macbeth

Lady

Macbeth

on

Macbeth

1
Influence

of

2
3.

Elements

Related

to

Free

Will

3
3.1.

The

Influence

of

Greed

and

Ambition

on

Macbeth

3
3.2. His Desire to Kill the King Even Before Meeting the Witches
5
4. Conclusion

Bibliography
7

ii

Abstract
In William Shakespeares Macbeth, elements related to Fate and elements
related to Free Will both can be found. But the general view toward this play
is that Fate led Macbeth to his downfall. By providing evidence from the text,
this article tries to reject this general view by clarifying to some extent the
boundaries of Fate and Free Will and showing that the elements related to
Free Will seem to have stronger effect on Macbeth than the elements related
to Fate. Macbeth is a very ambitious person and in order to be the king, he
does whatever he can to achieve this goal; no matter how evil those actions
are. So it can be concluded that despite the elements of Fate which are present
throughout the play, in the final run, it is Macbeth himself who makes all
those choices and it is his own Free Will that leads him to his downfall.

Keywords: Shakespeare, Macbeth, Fate, Free Will, Ambition

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1. Introduction
Which one has a stronger influence on Macbeth, Fate or Free Will? In this paper, the
concepts of Fate and Free Will are discussed about the play "Macbeth" by William
Shakespeare to see which one causes his downfall at the end. According to Advanced
Learner's Dictionary, Fate is a power that some people believe causes and controls all
events, so that you can't change or control the way things will happen and Free Will is
the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence. This article tries
to reach an answer for the question asked on the first line by examining the elements
below:
I. Elements through which Fate imposes its power
A. The witches
B. Lady Macbeth
II. Elements that indicate Macbeths Free Will
A. His greed and ambitions
B. His desire to kill the king even before meeting the witches
Although the elements related to Fate were strong enough to push Macbeth to his
determined destiny, but at the end, he was the one who made all those evil choices.

2. Elements Related to Fate


The elements discussed below are the ones that tempted Macbeth to do the evil things he
did. They were a push for Macbeth to make him do what he already had in mind.

2.1. The Influence of the Witches on Macbeth


It is very clear in the whole play that witches play a very important role in driving Macbeth
into his downfall. Witches are the first to unleash Macbeth's black and deep desires by
promising him crown in the near future. [] Throughout the whole play, dark supernatural
powers trick and deceive Macbeth. In Act IV, the apparitions playing with words, convince

him to continue to walk along the bloody path by advising him to be bloody, bold, and
resolute and to have no fear(Bugor 2000: n. pag.).
Greenblatt has also suggested the influence of witches on Macbeth from the beginning of
the play to the end:
It is Macbeth's first encounter with these hagsthe weird (or, in the original
spelling, "wayward" or "weyard") sisters that seems to initiate his descent toward
murder and tyranny. But what kind of power do these malevolent bearded women
have over Macbeth? Are they responsible, by magical influence or by planting the
idea in his mind, for his decision to kill Duncan? Are they somehow privy to a
predestined fate, as if they have seen the script of the tragedy before it is performed?
Or, alternatively, are they uncanny emblems of Macbeth's psychological condition, a
kind of screen onto which he projects his "horrible imaginings"? The word "weird,"
in one of its etymologies, derives from the Old English word for "fate," but do the
women Shakespeare depicts, trafficking in ambiguous prophecies, fretting over
village squabbles, mumbling charms, actually control destiny (or, what amounts to
the same thing, the tragedy's plot)? What is the nature of these strange creatures that
"look not like the'inhabitants o'th' earth," as Banquo observes, "and yet are on't"?
(1997: 787-788)
According to William Hazlitt "Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his
fate like a vessel drifting before a storm: he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers
under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others" (1817: 100).
From the evidence provided above, it can be inferred that the witches role is very
prominent in leading Macbeth to his evil deeds.

2.2. The Influence of Lady Macbeth on Macbeth


Apart from the role the witches play in driving Macbeth into his downfall, the role of Lady
Macbeth is also very prominent. After the witches awaken Macbeth's desires of becoming
king, his wife begins to push Macbeth towards the real act of murdering Duncan. Lady
Macbeth thinks she knows exactly what Macbeth wantsbecoming a kingand decides that
she has to force her husband to do what he would never do without her supportto kill

Duncan. [] Lady Macbeth uses all the methods she can to convince her husband to
murder Duncan.(Bugor 2000: n. pag.)
Greenblatt also discusses the role of Lady Macbeth:
When we first glimpse Lady Macbeth, she is reading a letter. The letter makes her
burn with visions of the "golden round" that "fate and metaphysical aid" seem to
have conferred upon her husband. But though she speaks of the crown as if it were
already on Macbeth's head, she fear that he is too full of the "milk of human
kindness" to seize what has been promised him. She resolves then to "chastise" her
husband, to urge him, in a phrase taken from archery, to screw his courage to the
sticking place. Lady Macbeth manipulates him in two principal ways. The first is
through sexual taunting. [] And the second is through the terrible force of her
determination [to do an evil act] []. (1997: 785-786).
So, based on the evidence provided above, its not hard to infer that Lady Macbeth was
also a very strong element in leading Macbeth into the evil deeds. His influence is
noticeable throughout the play.

3. Elements Related to Free Will


The elements discussed below are the ones which indicate Macbeth had Free Will to do his
evil actions.

3.1. The Influence of Greed and Ambition on Macbeth


"I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition"(Macbeth 1.7.
25-27). Macbeth had no reason but his own to kill the king. The king has done nothing
cruel to him. So he murdered the king because of his greed and ambition.
Why did he allow his wife and witches to convince him to do what he thought was
wrong? The answer is that he wanted to be convinced. In fact, Macbeth began to think
about becoming king even before he met the witches. This explains his strange reaction
after he heard the witches' prophecies. Bugor also acknowledges this fact:
Macbeth is afraid and feels guilty after he receives great predictions of becoming
thane of Cawdor and king! The only explanation is that witches guess his own
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thoughts and catch him thinking about such an evil thing as killing Duncan. Another
evidence to support the idea that Macbeth wanted to murder Duncan is the reaction
of Lady Macbeth after she reads Macbeth's letter. Her thoughts immediately jump to
murder, even though murder was not even mentioned anywhere in the letter. It seems
that Macbeth had been cherishing the idea of murdering Duncan for a long time and
discussed it with Lady Macbeth many times. [] He wants to get support and advice
for murdering Duncan from both witches and Lady Macbeth and gets them. Macbeth
needs this push from the external forces to suppress his conscience and begin
committing bloody crimes. After the evil side of Macbeth's character receives help
from the witches and Lady Macbeth, it completely takes over his good side and can
now act by itself with no help from the outside. Macbeth's next murder after killing
Duncan and groomsmurder of Banquois never advised by the weird sisters or
supported by his wife. And as well, there is absolutely no reason of murdering
Macduff's family. (2000: n. pag.)
McEachern also believes that it is ambition that makes Macbeth do those evil actions: "The
immediate result of yielding to ambition, of forcibly disturbing the hereditary order, of
making himself into something he was not born to be, is that Macbeth becomes
disastrously divided against himself. His manhood erases his humanity; his senses
contradict each other; his hand and eye, face and heart, become deceptively discrepant.
Ambition provokes an inward as well as an outward civil war." (2003: 176) "A relentless
desire propels Shakespeares Macbeth into crime after crime, tomorrow and tomorrow, and
unfulfilled into death" (ibid: 161). Macbeths ambition to become the king is the main
reason that leads him to kill the king and to do the other evil actions. Thus the Florentine
Niccolo Machiavelli [] writes in chapter 37 of his Discourses that when men are no
longer obliged to fight from necessity, they fight from ambition, which passion is so
powerful in the hearts of men that it never leaves them, no matter to what height they may
rise (Greenblatt 1997: 786).
Dillon also confirms that "[t]he ambition of becoming king, when the weird sisters
tell him his fortune, is stronger than his conscience and ability from knowing right from
wrong. His ambition of becoming king drove him to stab King Duncan. Macbeth knew too
much about his future, but did not understand how to interpret the prophecies. He interprets

the predictions the wrong way and slowly takes another step into his grave. His tragedy is
to know so clearly how he has failed as a man" (2007: 125).

3.2. His Desire to Kill the King Even Before Meeting the Witches
After Macbeth meets the witches, it becomes obvious that even before that, Macbeth have
had in mind to kill the king; and at the next scene it becomes clear that he and his wife had
already planned to murder the king. So when Macbeth hesitates to fulfill their desire, Lady
Macbeth starts to scorn him. Dillon claims the same point:
From the point where Macbeth returns to his wife and begins to plot the murder as a
reality, his struggle to maintain an existence across two worlds is made worse by the
need for conscious craft and deceit. Although before he was unconsciously 'rapt' by
the intrusion of unwelcome imaginings, now he must voluntarily distance himself
from the world of everyday reality by masking his true intentions. He must look like
thinnocent flower, / But be the serpent undert (1.5.645); 'False face must hide
what the false heart doth know'(1.7.83). (2007: 117)

4. Conclusion
Consistent with Shakespeare's definition of tragedy, the protagonist in this play chooses
freely the path to self-destruction through his fatal flaw, or hamartia1 which was his
ambition. Far more than any other of Shakespeare's villains, [] Macbeth is fully aware
of the wickedness of his deeds and is tormented by this awareness. Endowed with a cleareyed grasp of the difference between good and evil, he chooses evil, even though the
choice horrifies and sickens him. (Greenblatt 1997: 785) "Macbeth is a tragedy of
ambitions which override that principle, choosing short-term, selfish satisfactions over the
compromises which sustain collective human life." (ibid: 178).
From all that was discussed in the article, it can be said that although the witches and
Lady Macbeth provided the push for him to kill the king, at the final run, it was Macbeth
himself who decided to do those evil actions. If he didnt want to do them, nothing and no

1. According to Nancy S. Rabinowitz "Hamartia is a concept used by Aristotle to describe tragedy.


Hamartia leads to the fall of a noble man caused by some excess or mistake in behavior, not
because of a willful violation of the gods' laws. Hamartia is related to hubris, which was also more
an action than attitude. Hamartia is also known as 'tragic flaw'" (2008: 15).
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one could force him to. So he is the only one who is responsible for all those evil deeds
and no one and nothing else can be blamed.

Bibliography
1. Primary sources:
Shakespeare, William. 2011 (1623). Macbeth. Dariush Ashouri (trans.). Tehran: Agah
Publication
2. Secondary sources:
Advanced Learner's Dictionary. 2005. Second Edition. London: Cambridge University
Press

Dillon, Janette. 2007. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's Tragedies. New York:
Cambridge University Press
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. 1997. The Norton Shakespeare (Tragedies). New York: W. W.
Norton & Company, Inc.
Hazlitt, William. 1817. Characters of Shakespeares Plays. London: C. H. Reynell
McEachern, Claire. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. London:
Cambridge University Press
Robinowitz, Nancy S. 2008. Greek Tragedy. Victoria: Blackwell Publishing
3. Online sources:
Bugor, Za. 2000. Downfall of Macbeth. http://www.planetpapers.com/free-termpaper/Downfall-of-Macbeth-2167.aspx (Last retrieved 15.6.2014)

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